*This article was originally published and written for the Indie MEGABOOTH's blog. Check them out here!
I came into the indie game scene as a “fakie”. My fiancée Michelle knew how badly I wanted to make games, so for my birthday two years ago she bought me a pass for GDC and told me I needed to go. “But I’m not making any games!” I claimed. “I’m not an indie dev, I’m just some guy who has stickers for his not-yet-existant indie studio!” But she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
That March 2014, I went to GDC for the first time. It was there that I found the Alt.Ctrl.GDC exhibit and was captivated by the developers and their immense creativity. Alt.Ctrl.GDC is an amazing exhibit held every year that showcases an on-site exhibit of games with alternative control schemes and interactions. (Alt.Ctrl.GDC is now taking submissions for 2016 btw! Click here to submit! )
However, these games are not your average videogame. These are special, physical, interactive games made with love by developers who want to explore the medium of videogames. Games like Jerry Belich’s Choosatron, Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga’s Panoramical, and Keita Takahashi’s Tenya Wanya Teens. Upon returning home after playing games like these, I was inspired to finally make a videogame, and that was the genesis of Butt Sniffin Pugs (BSP).
So here I am a year later, getting blessed with crazy opportunities like being chosen to show BSP at festivals, getting asked to give talks about its design, getting the chance to collaborate with PewDiePie, and to be frank, a little overwhelmed with all the success. This is our first indie game and it’s still a prototype for crying out loud!
So, I thought I’d share our little success story. I believe in telling the tale of BSP and its pug butt controller because there are some lessons to be learned. Our development followed the mission statements of my indie studio, SpaceBeagles, so in the next few paragraphs I’ll list these statements, how I think we applied them correctly, and how that helped BSP evolve over time.
CREATE POSITIVE EXPERIENCES THAT GIVE PEOPLE JOY
The first version of Butt Sniffin Pugs was a horrible competitive multiplayer game. I was obessed with competitive local multiplayer at the time and was convinced that BSP needed to be the next Towerfall. So we made this gross prototype where there were 50 pugs on screen and it was this competitive multiplayer game “for gamers”.
It was only when my fiancée Michelle intervened that BSP started to turn into something good. If I’m the “gamer” game designer, she’s the “non-gamer” game designer. She was like “I love you, but 90% of these ideas are crap. But these two ideas… exploring in an interactive safe space and doing so with a friend, THOSE are good ideas.” She showed me that BSP needed to be a game that was just about fun, a game with no necessary objectives where you can just play as pugs with a friend.
So we decided to completely redo BSP, and for fun, submit it to Alt.Ctrl.GDC and make a custom controller for it. We were going to make a game that was based around the feeling of cooperative joy. Why “joy”? Because “happiness” is just a state of being. It’s a fleeting sensation based on one’s self. Joy is the sensation you feel when you experience emotions greater than happiness. Joy is a greater emotion because it moves a person out of a self-centered preoccupation and instead provides an orientation towards others… which is more memorable.
If we could catalyze a multiplayer experience that revolved around joy, not only would it be memorable, but it would be fulfilling for us as developers! What better way to feel good about your game than by seeing every kind of player, young and old, have fun with it?
That’s why we decided to go all out with an alternate controller. Making the game playable with a giant trackball was familiar, made people curious, and drew people in. Having a little pug butt on the controller made the two players feel awkward in the beginning, allowing their social barriers to come down early and enabling them to have fun with somebody they didn’t know. That’s why there are no “objectives”. The hook was that every single object was interactive, allowing players to bark, poop, and pee on everything as pugs, and experience the joyful interactions that came forth while exploring with a friend.
Maybe your game isn’t about “fun”. Maybe you want to provide another form of entertainment, and that’s fine! But for me, I want to make games that make the world a better place. So I’m going to make interactive positive experiences, and I’m starting with Butt Sniffin Pugs.
FUN FIRST, ACCESSIBILITY SECOND, MESSAGE LAST
Getting to meet and collaborate with PewDiePie was definitely a highlight of the show, but being able to to share this moment at PAX Prime with a kid and his dad really took the cake:
It was around 6pm, which is when the public is immediately ushered out of the halls. A father was pushing his kid in a wheelchair and I could see the dissapointment on his face. It was closing time and I’m assuming they weren’t able to play many games due to being wheelchair bound. I yelled “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY SOME BUTT SNIFFIN PUGS!?” and immediately saw a smile on the kids’ face and took it as a yes.
Seconds seemed like hours as I franctically moved wires and cables to pull out this giant pug butt trackball controller so this kid would be able to reach it. I launched the demo, and immediately skipped the tutorial hoping he would get at least 1 minute of fun before getting ushered out. Instead of giving my usual spiel and explaining how to play, I just said “press these buttons to do stuff, and have fun.”
I couldn’t say anything more. I was a 6 foot tall crybaby desperately trying to hold it in as the father next to me weeped for his child and thanked me. This was why I chose to make games. To show people that games are for everyone and that everyone deserves to experience the joy they can bring.
We designed BSP in the order of fun first, accessibility second, and message last. I believe that is why our game is so popular; everyone can play it. We didn’t pigeonhole ourselves by defining our game into a genre. We took a style of game that we liked, emphasized the fun parts from a prototype, and made it SUPER accessible. That allowed us to have multiple audiences, which speaks to our game’s accessibility message too.
USE GAMES TO SPEAK ABOUT SOMETHING GREATER
If you make games, what’s the game you’re making? Pitch it to me. Ok, now let me ask you why should I care. There’s no reason for me too. Unless your game has a hook that makes it different from the million other games in the world, your game’s not special.
That’s why I believe in using game development as a catalyst to speak about something greater than the game itself. I believe working in these guidelines allows hooks to naturally grow from your game.
Vlambeer is doing an amazing job of using Nuclear Throne to show what it’s like to have a game in Early Access. The Stanley Parable used its game design to be a spectular interactive critique on games and gamers alike. We developed Butt Sniffin Pugs within the confines of a giant trackball so that its gameplay might be accessible to all players. And through doing so, it become a popular interactive meditation on the joy of play.
Working within this mantra helped our game become a story. We didn’t have to reach out much to press because they were coming to us already. BSP stood out from all the rest. The press had things to say about BSP because it’s a lot easier to talk about a game when it’s more than a game.
Now I know this may not apply to everyone but I definitely think it’s worth a try even in the smallest aspect! Maybe you decide to be like Undertale and reinvent the RPG genre through one game mechanic. Give people something to talk about besides your game’s take on a usual genre and I think you’ll succeed.
These are our game design philosophies. They may not be for everyone, and I recognize that. Maybe making alternate controllers isn’t for you! Maybe you just want to make a videogame and making it accessible to kids, gamers, grandparents, or people with disabilities isn’t viable for you right now. That’s totally ok. We all make games in our own way.
What I’m saying is that Butt Sniffin Pugs was made in a unique way.
And that’s why we’re going to do a Kickstarter for it this October, because we want to keeping pushing that envelope. We want to work with IndieBox to mod the giant trackball into a giant trackball-gamepad. We want our partner Able Gamers to use it to help kids with disabilities play computer games easier. We want to give players a massive puggy virtual world to explore that is accessible to everyone.
We as developers have so much power and I believe that we can do more than provide escapism. We have the ability to inspire thought about our world through this medium so let’s try, I say!
So let’s try to make weird controllers, let’s try to say things through our games and let’s try to push this medium that we love to its limit.
Gabe Telepak is the Director for Butt Sniffin Pugs. He poops out indie games and pixel art and gets busy running his independent game studio SpaceBeagles with his fiancée Michelle and their army of pugs.